YOU know what’s overdue at Manitoba’s public libraries? The elimination of fines.
More public libraries have stopped penalizing patrons who are late in returning items. These libraries withdrew all fines because they want to be welcoming and accessible to all. They don’t want to scare away people who have no easy way to pay.
People deterred from libraries by the possibility of fines include youth with limited or no income. It’s a shame when children and teens, especially those from disadvantaged households, feel discouraged from hanging out at libraries, where they would be within reach of supportive staff who can guide them into the world of literacy and positive possibility.
Other people who fear fines include those who are unemployed, homeless or recent immigrants. When they stay away from libraries, they also stay away from opportunities for education, entertainment and community connections. Libraries may provide their only access to computers and services such as printers and copiers.
The American Library Association calls library fines "a form of social inequity." It passed a resolution last year calling on libraries to find ways to eliminate their fines.
U.S. library systems that have heeded the call and stopped collecting fines for past-due materials are in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Nashville, San Diego, Oakland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Baltimore.
It seems library systems in Canada have been slower to make the jump. The public library in Whistler, B.C., has dropped all overdue fines. The systems in the Ontario cities of Brampton and Newmarket have stopped overdue fines on children’s materials.
In Winnipeg, the library system continues to impose fines and, once the amount due hits $15, the patron’s borrowing privileges are suspended.
Such a fine may seem like a small matter to people with a regular paycheque, but it’s a barrier to people who are struggling financially. This includes low-income parents who won’t sign the permission forms that are mandatory for children under 17 years old to get library cards. Some parents won’t consent because they fear their family will get into trouble when they can’t pay their children’s fines.
It’s not like Manitoba’s library professionals want it that way. The best of them view their role as a high calling, vital to civilized communities, and they want to attract, not deter, patrons. Some of them go out of their way to be extra nice to youthful patrons from rough environments, giving the kids special attention so they discover the library is a safe place to grow into a better reader and high achiever.
Undoubtedly, some citizens would oppose the elimination of fines. They might argue the library system needs the money, and also that fines help teach responsibility to errant patrons who break their commitment to return items on time.
But the annual library fine revenue for the Winnipeg system is only about two per cent of the system’s total operating budget, a spokesperson for the city’s communication department told me. And even that modest two per cent comes at a cost, as it diverts library employees from more important duties so they can interact negatively with patrons by imposing fines, sending out notices and trying to collect.
As far as viewing fines as a moral lesson to teach patrons to be more responsible, that shouldn’t be the library’s role in our community. The main mission of public libraries is to provide equitable and free access to services that let citizens improve and entertain themselves. Punishing patrons undermines that mandate.
Back in 2016, St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard made a pitch during budget deliberations to abandon fines for overdue children’s books. His presentation included a report from former manager of library services, Rick Walker. To the surprise of some people, the report noted libraries that eliminated fines for children and teens found no noticeable increase in the amount of unreturned materials but a marked increase in the number of library users.
Allard’s proposal to a council committee was "received as information" and went no further. Four years later, it’s time to resurrect the proposal and let the Winnipeg system go fine free.
Eliminating fines would go a long way toward restoring the relationship with patrons that was damaged by the February 2019 decision to flout the public library philosophy of open access by instituting intrusive checks of all patrons at the Millenium branch, searching bags and scanning all patrons with a hand-held metal detectors.
Library patrons shouldn’t be greeted at the entry door with searches that are, by their nature, based on suspicion. They also shouldn’t be alienated by fines.
Winnipeg should get with the times and join the trend of libraries that have found their operations improved when they stopped chasing people for money. The relationship between libraries and their patrons works best when it’s based on trust.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.